Sunday, August 23, 2015

Dinner "Withlocals" Barcelona - a review

This week I was fortunate enough to have a free dinner courtesy of Withlocals (in exchange for writing this blog post.)


In a small apartment near Barcelona's Plaça d'Espanya my wife Paula and I met a home cook who uses the name Yosuz and a Finnish friend of hers. We were immediately served glasses of homemade summer white-wine sangria and started nibbling on fried pastry triangles which we dipped into a lovely smoky, roasted baba ganoush eggplant dip.

We all soon sat down to get know each other over a wonderful home-cooked meal of salty Portuguese clams, simple "Spanish-style" mussels and a seafood and pasta stew. The food was exceptionally fresh, not at all overcooked and I greatly enjoyed the difference from Spanish food in that coriander leaves were used rather than parsley.

For dessert we tucked into another homemade delicacy - this one pistachio ice cream served with an unexpected dab of tahini paste on the side which beautifully accented the nuttiness of the dish (see picture.) Yosuz had lived for some time in Egypt (as well as in Venezuela and England) and this was also reinforced in the perfumed hibiscus tea we drank before saying our thanks and goodbyes.

If our experience was indicative of what a curious, hungry person usually finds using Withocals then I highly recommend it to anyone visiting a foreign country or even living in one. It struck me as a great way to try international food of your choice and meet new people.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

"Swarms, floods and marauders:" the language of the [European] refugee crisis

"...the ability to influence thought matters a great deal. George Orwell recognised this, inventing Newspeak to illustrate how, in one nightmare scenario, language could be used as an instrument of control.

We’re not there yet, but if we want to maintain the ability to think clearly and independently about migration, there’s good reason to be wary of some of the vocabulary now being bandied about."

Read more from David Shariatmadari's article in the Guardian online.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Saturday, August 1, 2015

"Australian gay politician gets married in Spain"

"A prominent gay Australian politician married his long-time partner in southern Spain on Wednesday, two months after his country voted down a proposal to enact same-sex marriage legislation.
Ian Hunter, the social inclusion minister for the state of South Australia, said he was disappointed that his marriage to artist Leith Semmens won't be legal in Australia, but said the two decided they couldn't wait for their country to approve a gay marriage law.
"I thought, we were coming to Spain anyway, so why not get married while we could. Spain is leading the world with its changes to its laws, and Australia is still having the debate, as is France and the UK," he said.
Mayor [of Jun in Granada province] Jose Antonio Rodriguez officiated at the ceremony attended by more than a dozen friends and relatives.
In accordance with a local tradition, the couple kissed for 17 seconds, which were counted out loud by the guests.
Hunter is believed to be the first sitting member of an Australian legislative body to marry a gay partner.
The former scientist has long been a vocal advocate for gay rights, and a lawmaker in the ruling Labour Party in the South Australian state legislature since 2006.
He became a state Cabinet minister last year.The party's annual national conference in December 2011 reversed its opposition to gay marriage, but Prime Minister Julia Gillard remains opposed. Legislation which would have recognised same-sex marriages was defeated in the House of Representatives in September in a 98-48 vote.
While Gillard allows Labour lawmakers to vote however they choose on gay marriage legislation, opposition leader Tony Abbott, a staunch Roman Catholic, insisted lawmakers in his conservative Liberal Party reject it.
Opinion polls consistently show that most Australians support same-sex marriage.

Spain enacted its gay marriage law in 2005."

More at AP source here.

Monday, July 27, 2015

"More Europeans Migrate to Latin America Than Vice Versa, Study Finds"

[“Leaving” Mural, by Antonio Segui, at Independencia station in the Buenos Aires metro, Argentina.
Photo: Rodrigo Borges Delfim]

"Contrary to popular belief, more Europeans are currently migrating from Europe to Latin America and the Caribbean than in the opposite direction. 

This is the conclusion reached in a study published recently by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), titled ‘Migratory Dynamics in Latin American and the Caribbean and between Latin America and the European Union’.

The document shows that more than 181,000 Europeans left their countries in 2012, in comparison with the 119,000 Latin Americans moving in the opposite direction. The data show a reduction of 68% in the latter flow compared to 2007, when the number of migrants moving from Latin America and the Caribbean to Europe stood at over 350,000 people, its highest level ever.

Spain is at the top of the list of countries with the highest number of citizens emigrating in search of new opportunities in Latin American states, with 181,166 emigrants to Latin America in 2012. It is followed by Italy, Portugal, France and Germany."

Read more at: Global Voices source.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

"How Spain’s Chinese immigrants went from dishwashers to doctors"

[Dídac Lee in Madrid on June 25. / LUIS SEVILLANO, El Pais.]
Fascinating stories of modern Chinese-Catalans and Chinese-Spaniards: proof that Iberia is slowly becoming more multi-cultural, and maybe at a faster rate than people here think.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

"Left-wing intellectuals of Europe: take on the challenge" says José "Pepe" Mujica

The most recent former President of Uruguay has published an article arguing that "European intellectuals must take the responsibility to change their social model before it turns into a catastrophe.

The trade union movement, the ideas of socialism, anarchism and communism, and all of the ideas of progress: all have their roots in Europe. It is in your continent that the first great popular movements – the main drivers of social change – emerged."

Read more here.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

"Hard to believe" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

 "Remember, little children are not too little to go hell.”

These are some of the words that are included in a new picture book published by a Puritan organisation in the United States last month. 

The book, whose title I choose not to state so that it is not given any further free publicity, is targeted at five to nine year olds and uses quotes and interpretation of lines from the bible to outline the usual nonsense about hell being a place of eternal fire where supposed sinners are “locked in [solitary] cages.”

In a note to parents at the back of the book, the author says: 

Some parents may be thinking that this kind of exhortation to children will give little ones horrible nightmares… It would be better for them to have nightmares now while you teach them about the realities of hell… than to wind up in the reality of the nightmare that is hell.”

Ignoring the obvious absurdity of such a place existing after death, writers such as Christopher Hitchens have questioned whether any good at all can come from terrifying children in this way. 

Others, such as Greta Christina have called it “child abuse.” 

Author Dan Arel has suggested “using a more Socratic method” of questioning children about what they already think as a better method of then exploring ideas about what happens to us when we eventually die.

Meanwhile in separate case of backwardness, a senior Vatican official has denounced the same-sex marriage referendum result in Ireland as a “defeat for humanity” after the country overwhelmingly voted to support it. 

On the same day as the Irish vote, reports emerged that Taiwanese pop songstress Jolin Tsai's song and her music video “We're All Different, Yet The Same” had been banned from broadcast in Singapore. The video shows two women in a marriage ceremony kissing (with closed mouths) for about seven seconds.

Also recently, two judges in Argentina are still somehow sitting at the head of their courts, after saying that the rape of a six year old boy wasn’t too serious because he was “already gay”. They reduced the rapist's sentence, saying the boy was used to being abused and had “homosexual tendencies”.

In Australia (that far off country that I used to call home) their ultra-conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott blocked both legislation and the possibility of a referendum on gay marriage.

In more encouraging news though, back on this side of the planet, Greenland’s Parliament has unanimously approved same-sex marriage and adoption. 

MPs in the country, which has a population of 57,000, voted to adopt Danish laws on the issue, scrapping Greenland’s domestic partnership legislation, adopted from Denmark in 1996. 

Also, a lesbian fleeing persecution (because of her sexuality) in her native Cameroon has now received asylum in Spain after a long legal battle.

Progress moves slowly - in fits and starts through the world - a world that calls itself modern.

I wish all readers a very enjoyable summer.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, July 2015.]

Saturday, June 27, 2015

"Sixto, Sitges and Camp Nou" - (An excerpt from my next book)

A friend of mine named Raúl Blanco has a father who originally came from Cordoba.

He told me that when his father (called Sixto, probably after one of the Popes) was seventeen he decided to try his luck finding work in Barcelona. 

Like a lot of the Spaniards at that time he was regularly living on little food - the 1940s and ‘50s were often called ‘the years of hunger’ - and he was prepared to risk what was then an illegal train trip due to the tight restrictions on travelling away from your home town.

Sixto was told by his friends to stand in the open space between the two carriages of the train and  when it started to slow down before Barcelona, around Sitges on the Garraf coast he should then jump off onto the ground. He was warned to only do this when he heard the announcement for the stop at Sitges

But Sixto did not hear the pronunciation of the town with a hard ‘g’ sound that he was accustomed to. Instead the soft “ch” of ‘Seetchas’ in the Catalan accent was used and when he soon arrived in Barcelona and got off the train that was supposed to take him to a bright new future he was arrested on the platform, thrown into jail for nine days then sent back to Cordoba.

Sixto was not deterred for long though. The next time he made sure that through his family he had arranged a work contract with former neighbours who had agreed to  officially sponsor him and his employment.

One of his first jobs was being a labourer on the Camp Nou, a new stadium for the city's beloved Barça football team. Like many of his so-called ‘immigrants’ he lived in the working class area of Hospitalet de Llobregat where with his wife (from the northern Burgos region) he went on to run a bar-restaurant.

Sixto’s story is emblematic and typical of his generation of rural families, especially those from Andalusia, a region where the Socialist party has governed without losing office since 1982. His hometown of Cordoba was actually the first provincial capital to elect a Communist mayor.

In King Solomon’s time Andalucia was called ‘Tarshish’ in Hebrew and was considered to be the legendary place of riches at the end of the world. If Sixto had known about this before he stepped onto the train he might have thought of it as a cruel joke.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

"If Greece falls..."

[Special meeting of the European Council on 23 April 2015. From left to right: Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament; Alexis Tsipras, Prime Minister of Greece; Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission. Photo: European Council. Source: Flickr]

"As the Greek crisis continues, Steffen Vogel reports that a majority of German business leaders look upon a Grexit as a favourable option, according to a survey published last month in the German business daily Handelsblatt.

At the same time, Vogel draws attention to the political price of a Grexit, summed up best he says in the words of Reuters European affairs editor Paul Taylor: "If Greece falls, no one wants their prints on the murder weapon".

"That applies to the German government too", Vogel continues, "long held up on the international stage as an example of a party that is blocking a lasting solution to the crisis.

Some weeks ago, The Economist mocked Wolfgang Schäuble as an 'ayatollah of austerity', thus reversing the rationale upon which Berlin claims to be acting pragmatically." "

[Source: Eurozine.]


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

'COLOUR' in Barcelona

The photographic work of my friend Ibrahim Sajid is part of a new exhibition (until June 21) at Arenas, the former bullring at Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, 373- on Plaça d'Espanya, Barcelona.

The concept of this international group project is stated as:

"Mankind has come a long way, yet even in today’s modern world, our behaviours are stereotypical.
Racism, bias and discrimination are the social evils prevalent in all societies and each and every one of us plays a role in either contributing to or breaking down racial prejudice and intolerant attitudes.
Our opinions are created and nurtured by superficial beliefs, making us form biases against ethnicities, cultures, religions, gender, nationalities, races and color without even trying to see beyond.
This installation urges us, as a society, to question the first impressions we form at a glance, regardless of his or her appearance, forcing us to look beyond the colour."

Thursday, June 4, 2015

"TTIPing us over the edge" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

While we are all going about our daily business this month, big business is going about trying to make sure that Europe is run purely in its interest.

If agreed to by the European parliament, the new Free Trade Agreement between the United States and the European Union, better known as TTIP, will do immeasurable damage to the lives of citizens across this continent. 

The progressive organisation Global Justice believes that it poses "great risks to hard won measures to protect public health, worker rights and the environment."

Essentially, TTIP is "designed to take away barriers which are behind the customs border – such as differences in regulations, standards and certifications" of goods for trade. 

This may sound reasonable but what it means is that Europe would be required by law to have exactly the same product rules as the United States, which are widely known to be the loosest and most anti-consumer protection in the developed world.

The TTIP negotiations have all been conducted in secret sessions - closed to the public and the media. 

The reason for this is simple. 

The leaks of information from the meetings have shown that TTIP would mean that any business could take any government to court if they believed that a government policy threatens their profits. 

This legal method, (known as the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism) has already led to countries being sued for putting health warnings on cigarette packets, regulating medicine and energy prices, raising minimum wages, and removing tax incentives.

TTIP would further strengthen the power of big business (because only the largest can afford it) to control what national parliaments can and cannot do for their private citizens. 

Fracking, to take just one other example, would be more likely to go ahead because public administrators would want to avoid costly litigation that they are likely to lose defending a decision against it.

On top of all this, there is a fear – from the European Commission itself – that because of TTIP changes up to one million workers employed in small businesses are almost certain to lose their jobs. 

So, if accepted, TTIP may well worsen inequality across the EU.

Meanwhile, according to online global web campaigners Avaaz, “cruel factory farms are pumping healthy animals full of antibiotics so that they can produce more meat, faster and cheaper.” 

They argue that this practise is also creating drug-resistant superbugs but, in a positive development, several European countries have already drastically cut the use of antibiotics, and now EU ministers are negotiating laws to do so across the wider region. 

Unsurprisingly, and in a parallel move with pressure on TTIP, “the farm and pharma lobby is out in full force to stop the new EU laws.”

I would urge readers to think about taking action by signing the online petitions (as I have done) at the websites of the two organizations I’ve mentioned above in this article: Global Justice and Avaaz.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, June 2015.]

Friday, May 29, 2015

"The Social Good City Guide to Barcelona"

A short but socially-conscious and informative guide for travellers to Barcelona - organised clearly under headings of What to Do, Where to Sleep, Where to Eat and Where to Shop.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Eurovision Song Contest 2015 Quiz

"Eurovision is a genuinely terrifying experience. This handy Bluffer's '60th anniversary' quiz contains useful information — enabling you to out-bore anyone forcing you to watch it [this weekend.]" 

Friday, May 15, 2015

How happy is Spain?

Measuring happiness is a very subjective act but it's fascinating to see that "the 10 countries with the largest declines in average life evaluations typically suffered some combination of economic, political and social stresses.

Three of the countries (Greece, Italy and Spain) were among the four hard-hit Euro-zone countries whose post-crisis experience was analyzed in detail in the [most recent and extremely comprehensive] World Happiness Report."

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Ester Vivas and this year's Biocultura event

"The [Sabadell-born progressive] journalist Esther Vivas has won one of the 2015 Biocultura Journalism Awards for her blog post in Publico titled"Beans are cooked."

BioCultura, the Organic Products Fair for Responsible Consumption is an international meeting which is among the two most important of its kind to be held in Europe. Its 22nd meeting is to be held in Barcelona with the awards ceremony on the 9th of May."

Friday, May 1, 2015

"Germanwings, depression and blame" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

The recent Germanwings airline tragedy has naturally been the focus for countless media stories. Many of us in Catalonia know people who were acquainted with victims and their families but there is another personal aspect to the crash that seems to provoke strong reactions in those who have no direct connection to it.

Because most of the developed world now travels by air at least a few times a year, we are aware, at least semi-consciously, that every time we step on board a flight we are putting our lives in the hands of a small number of people - most particularly the pilots. It’s understandable and even maybe logical that we look for something or someone to blame when a plane is the cause of 150 deaths. Our instincts for justice demand an explanation. Now it has become clear that the co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, made a conscious decision to commit suicide/mass-murder and used his plane as a weapon. We also know that Lubitz had suffered from a severe depressive episode while training to be a pilot in 2009 and was receiving regular medical treatment right up to the day that he plowed the plane into a French mountain. According to his former doctors this treatment was for physical problems, not psychological ones.

What we do not know though, and most probably could never know is exactly why he chose to end his own life in such a horrific way. Lubitz had reportedly told an ex-girlfriend “One day I will do something...and everyone will then know my name and remember me.” This gives an egotistical motive for his actions but does not adequately explain much else. One of the most important points that arises here, and one that a lot of media has distorted or missed altogether, is that depression does not create homicidal maniacs.

A depressed person is actually highly unlikely to take others with them to the grave and the vast majority of people with depression do not hurt anyone because suicide is the main extreme risk, not violence. In this same column in December last year I wrote that “Today too, there are increasing numbers of people who are not only acknowledging their own depression or mental illness but are speaking openly about it in public forums and in the media.” Unfortunately, Andreas Lubitz was not someone who believed that he could do anything like this and apparently went to great trouble to hide his interior struggles from his employers. If he had found the right help, he and his unwitting victims, almost all of them strangers to him, might well have lived.

The statistics show that most murder-suicides happen in domestic settings, and involve a male and his spouse. Murder-suicides involving pilots or in gun massacres are, in fact, a great deal rarer. Lubitz himself then does not fit a standard type or pattern but I would speculate that he was a man (75% of suicides are men) who was overwhelmed with the complications of a high-pressure job and was desperate and confused. In an extravagant gesture, he had just bought matching Audi’s for himself and his current girlfriend, who was pregnant.

There is a real danger that Lubitz’s violence unfairly creates a greater stigma for those who have psychiatric problems and that men in particular will be less likely to talk to mental health professionals or even family and friends. I have had a limited, short-term personal experience with depression and would hate to see a major tragedy like this one lead to a deeper code of silence about the difficulties of the human mind.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, May 2015.]

Saturday, April 25, 2015

"The Last Coal Miners of Spain"

"Coal is on the way out in Europe, and it is dying a slow and ugly death. Its decline has been hastened by competition from the renewable-energy industry, cheaper imported coal from Russia and the United States and new air-quality regulations passed by the European Union. 

The death throes have been especially violent in Spain, where the national coal-mining industry was created by royal order in 1621 to exploit the coal basin at Villanueva del Rio y Minas in Seville. In 1990, 167 coal mines employed about 40,000 workers. Today there are roughly 40 active mines, employing fewer than 4,000 miners. The struggling industry has long been supported by state subsidies..."

Read more from source at the New York Times here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Very Brief History of Ladino Literature/ Manuel Forcano’s “Catalan Jews”

"The Sephardi Jews who settled in the Ottoman empire created a rich and varied literature in Ladino—their own dialect of Spanish written in Hebrew characters. Avner Perez traces the history of this literature and its connection to contemporary Spanish literature:

For a long time, researchers thought that literary creation in Ladino had only begun in the first third of the 18th century. Material discovered in recent years has given us a completely different picture. The intellectual elite of the exiled Jews spoke a [uniquely Jewish] dialect, but was still part of the Hispanic world and used literary Castilian in its literary creations. What set [the language of these works] apart [from standard Castilian Spanish] was its use of Hebrew characters as well as the presence of other [distinctive Ladino features].

Three pieces of classical theater in Judeo-Spanish printed in Hebrew characters, dating back to the end of the 16th century, have come down to us. They were the first such pieces printed in Hebrew characters. Two of them, Aquilana, by Bartolome de Torres Navarro (1480-1530), and Tragedia Josephina, by Micael de Carvajal (who died in 1578), are pieces of Spanish classical theater [rendered into an early form of Ladino]. The third, Ma’aseh Yosef (“Joseph’s Tale”), . . . is an original work. All this shows that the intelligentsia that descended from exiles from Spain had a rich cultural life. The channels through which they received the Spanish Renaissance culture were still open.”  [Source: Mosaic.]

Manuel Forcano launched his new book last week...

"(Barcelona, 1968; philologist, poet, translator), Els jueus catalans. La història que mai no t’han explicat. [The Catalan Jews: the history they never told you], 384 pages.

The publisher’s summary:

This book gives an overview of the history of Jews in Catalonia, from the first mentioning to the current Jewish communities. When they arrived, where they settled, how they lived, who persecuted them and for which reasons, how they survived the attacks, where and how they prayed, how they organized themselves, which figures led them, what of them has survived, what they wrote and if they did so in Hebrew or Catalan – these are some of the questions that the book answers in an informative and entertaining way. During their century-long presence in Catalonia, from the Jewish communities arose geographers, grammaticians, physicians, poets, philosophers, theologians and kabbalists of enormous prestige, even today venerated in the Jewish world, but unfortunately hardly known in Catalonia.”

Read more from source, Literary Rambles blog here.

Friday, April 10, 2015